Over a 100 million in attendance, a mini-city springing on the banks of the confluence of three rivers, over 30,000 police personnel to give security, miles and miles of power cables, sewage pipelines and a budget of 1200 crore rupees. Unbelievable as it sounds, and all this for just forty days. No, this is not a political protest, rock concert or shopping extravaganza. In fact, in these days of religious and spiritual consciousness on the wane, nothing, absolutely nothing compares with this spectacular Vedic event. We are discussing the Kumbha-mela, dubbed the largest gathering of humanity on this planet.
The exact historical origin of this gathering is a subject matter for scholars and empiricists to wrangle about, but when I visited the Mela on February 17, I was convinced that the Lord remains the most popular person – ever. I was not present during the busiest bathing dates, but yet I was very impressed with what I saw.
Let me relate a personal incident. I was watching a group of pilgrims enter our camp and I saw that they were in front of our dismantled dioramas depicting Lord Vishnu saving the life of Gajendra the elephant. To my surprise, the group started to offer obeisance to those dioramas. I asked myself, "What is this that sustains their faith?" It seems that this is what is wrong with Hinduism today. People appear to just flock anywhere where salvation is promised. And especially at the Kumbha-mela, just one dip in the icy cold waters promises you mokse (liberation) from all your sins. But what could be the real reason behind this ancient ritual? Once, during a previous Kumbha-mela, a devotee wanted to leave the mela site and board a train at Allahabad station. To his surprise, he could not see any rickshaw alia willing to take him as it was the auspicious bathing time. In utter frustration, he complained to Srila Prabhupada that he simply could not understand such behavior. Srila Prabhupada smiled and explained that from the western point of view, this indeed is impractical, but because this person is trained in spiritual life (samskara), he is willing to forego a paltry material profit for a hefty spiritual one.
What indeed is the spiritual profit? To begin with, the whole purpose behind the Mela is to benefit from the association of spiritually elevated souls. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.5.2) explains, "One can attain the path of liberation from material bondage only by rendering service to highly advanced spiritual personalities. These personalities are impersonalists and devotees. Whether one wants to merge into the Lord's existence or wants to associate with the Personality of Godhead, one should render service to the mahatmas. For those who are not interested in such activities, who associate with people fond of women and sex, the path to hell is wide open. The mahatmas are equipoised. They do not see any difference between one living entity and another. They are very peaceful and are fully engaged in devotional service. They are devoid of anger, and they work for the benefit of everyone. They do not behave in any abominable way. Such people are known as mahatmas."
This is the real reason: pilgrims come to Prayaga mainly to associate with mahatmas, or self-realized souls. Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.25.20), "Every learned man knows very well that attachment for the material is the greatest entanglement of the spirit soul. But that same attachment, when applied to the self-realized devotees, opens the door of liberation."
The masses were taught by the mahatmas that attachment for one thing is the cause of bondage and the same attachment can also open the door of liberation. The process is not to kill attachment but to simply transfer it. Thus attachment for material things is called material consciousness and the same attachment transferred to Krishna is called Krishna consciousness.
People mainly were educated to search out sadhus or someone who is a strict follower of devotional service unto the Supreme Lord. He is not necessarily a man with a saffron robe or long beard.
This training runs in the veins of the common masses and just refuses to die. The Chief Executive Officer of the Kumbha-Mela project mused, "After March 10, the day of Shivaratri, if you come here you won't find anyone at all. It would seem like this was some kind of a magical city like EI Dorado, Shambala etc." Now this is where he got it wrong. This faith which motivates the innocent mind to offer respects – even to broken dioramas – is simply not imaginary. It is alive and well.